Star-crossed: Learning from celebrity estate planning mistakes

I'm not a big fan of celebrity gossip, but when I came across Trial & Heirs list of Top 10 Celebrity Estate Planning Mistakes, I couldn't resist. You will recognize the names, but you may be surprised that despite fame and fortune, they made the same mistakes common to a more terrestrial crowd.

For example, despite his prodigious riffs on his Fender Stratocaster, rock icon Jimi Hendrix was like a lot of regular folks--he did no estate planning. His ommission means that his affairs have been managed by virtual strangers for over 30 years.

Michael Jackson moonwalked his way into pop history, but procrastinated his way into estate planning oblivion. Like a lot of people, he established a living trust, but failed to get it fully funded. The result was a very public probate process that opened the family to scrutiny they would have preferred to avoid.

Florence Griffith-Joyner was a sensation on the track, winning three gold medals in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. She also made a splash off the track, achieving a level of celebrity matched by few women athletes. When Flo-Jo died unexpectedly in 1998 during an epileptic seizure, she had a will, but unfortunately no one knew where it was. Her family struggled through four years of probate before her estate could be settled.

And in case you are getting the mistaken impression these are only problems for entertainers and athletes, consider Princess Di. She used a "letter of wishes" to leave personal effects to her godchildren. Unfortunately, in England as in the United States, a "letter of wishes" has dubious standing in court.

These mistakes, and the others in the "Top 10" (click here for the full list), can help the rest of us avoid many of the common pitfalls that torpedo many estate plans. We may feel young and healthy. We may be at the top of our games professionally. We may have the world at our feet. Still, one day we will each surrender our place to those who follow behind us. We would do well to take time now to ensure that those who follow find our affairs properly ordered.